Whales of Iceland: Which whales can you find around Iceland?

Whales of Iceland

Iceland is a fantastic place to observe whales. Due to its prime location in the North Atlantic Ocean, many whales migrate to Icelandic waters to feed during the warmer summer months. More than 20 whale species call the Icelandic waters their home. Venturing out on one of the many whale-watching tours is usually one of the easiest ways to spot the cetaceans, but some lucky devils might also catch a glimpse of a whale from Iceland’s shores! 

If you’re interested in finding the best whale-watching tours in Iceland, make sure also to check out our whale-watching guide and find the best spots to observe these large ocean mammals!

Here’s a guide to all the whale species around Iceland and their favourite spots.

Whales of Iceland

Whale species in Iceland

Whales are warm-blooded mammals which nurse their offspring and need to come up to the surface to breathe air. Interestingly enough, all whales have hair in some way or another. Most whales have their hair follicles, whereas land mammals have their whiskers today. Humpback whales, for instance, have bumps on their head, each containing a follicle with a single hair! The existence of hair might be a remnant of their land-mammal ancestors. Whales and cows (and other hoofed animals) actually share a common ancestor about 50 million years ago!

Whales belong to the cetacea category, also including dolphins and porpoises. Whale species can generally be distinguished into toothed and baleen whales. While baleen whales, like blue whales and humpback whales, have – well – baleens to filter their food, toothed whales like orcas (also commonly known as “killer whales”), beluga whales and pilot whales use their teeth to hunt and eat larger prey items.

Due to their proximity to the Arctic, Icelandic waters are rich in nutrients, such as krill, small fish, and other small crustaceans. That is why many whales spend their summers in colder waters off the shores of Iceland, Canada and Greenland. They stay in these waters for 4 to 6 months, eating and bulking up in blubber as a food reserve for the winter months when they migrate back to tropical areas for breeding and calving season, where food is scarce.

Whales of Iceland
Whale-Watching in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Baleen whales around Iceland

Baleen whales are among the biggest species on our planet and are generally larger than toothed whales. In contrast to toothed whales, they have two blowholes on the top of their head, whereas toothed whales only have one. With their baleen plates, they mostly feed on plankton, especially krill, which are tiny crustaceans that can be found in all the world’s oceans. Baleen whales also have wide ranges and usually migrate thousands of kilometres to reach their destination. Generally, baleen whales tend to be slower than their toothed peers, with a few exceptions: one of them is the fin whale, also called the Greyhound of the sea.

Blue whale
Blue Whale
Swimming blue whale (credit: NOAA)

Famously known as the biggest animal that has ever lived, the blue whale also visits Iceland during summer. Female animals can reach a length of up to 32 metres (104 ft), while their male counterparts reach about 27 metres (88 ft). In Iceland, we have the northern blue whale, mostly found in the north of Iceland. Húsavík is the whale-watching capital of Iceland, and even though it is quite rare, there have been sightings of blue whales nearly every year! 

In a single mouthful of water, a blue whale can engulf over 100 tonnes of water and eat up between 10 and 22 tonnes of krill per day (22,000-48,000 pounds). As blue whales produce very tall blows (about 10m/32ft), they are easily spotted. Usually, they can dive for more than 30 minutes, making it quite possible to observe one on a whale-watching tour! “Icelandic” blue whales usually migrate here from places like the Azores and the northwest coast of Africa, though not all migration routes are known.

During the peak of commercial whaling, thousands of animals were killed, leading to repercussions in blue whale populations today. The species is on the IUCN (International Union for Conservation of Nature) Red Endangered Species list. In Iceland, blue whales have been protected from whaling since 1960.

Fin whale
hvalur whaling in iceland
Dead fin whale at the whaling station on Hvalfjörður (credit: Golli)

Fin whales are the second largest animal on earth after blue whales. In contrast to their blue whale peers, they are also called the greyhounds of the sea, as they can reach a very fast speed (for their size) of a maximum of 47 km/h (15mi/h) in small outbursts. Females can reach a length of about 18-20 metres (65ft). Fin whales tend to favour offshore waters between Iceland and Greenland as their summer feeding grounds and are usually quite far out – further than whale-watching observation grounds. As blue whales and fin whales share their feeding areas within Icelandic water, there are cases where the two species have produced offspring together, so-called hybrids.

The worldwide population of fin whales is considered vulnerable, with about 40,000 individuals in the entire North Atlantic. Unfortunately, Iceland is still one of the only countries to commercially whale – and the only nation left that hunts fin whales. After a short hiatus, whaling in Iceland resumed in the last few years, killing hundreds of fin whales and small numbers of hybrid whales for meat export to Japan. If you’re interested in reading more about whale hunting in Iceland, you can check out our recent feature article here and listen to our Deep North podcast episode here.

Humpback whale
Whales of Iceland
Humpback whale munching on some food in Faxaflói, Reykjavík (credit: Golli)

Humpback whales are one of the kinds that are most commonly observed from the shores or on whale-watching tours in Iceland. Female humpbacks reach an average length of about 15 metres (50ft), while males are up to 14 metres in size. Due to their agility, they often breach, making it easy to spot them! In the summer of 2019, humpbacks were seen on 28 out of 31 days from whale watching tours in Reykjavík!

Usually, humpback whales like to stay in solitude but occasionally stay in small groups and pairs. Interestingly enough, they have various hunting techniques, like bubble-net feeding, where they swim beneath a school of fish and release air bubbles, which trap the fish in the bubble net, making it easy and clever for them to catch their prey!

Minke whale
Minke whale Iceland
Minke whale swimming about (credit: Wikimedia Commons/Waielbi)

While the previous baleen whales have all been massive in size, the minke whale is the smallest species of baleen whales found around Iceland. The North Atlantic minke whale is dark grey with a white belly and distinctive white bands on their pectoral fins. 

They usually surface quite often before venturing on a deeper dive that lasts approximately 20 minutes. They are, therefore, quite commonly spotted from whale watching boatsMinke whales are the most common whales in the coastal Icelandic waters, with approximately 13,000 individuals. Iceland stopped hunting the species in 2019.

Sei whale
A mother Sei Whale and it's calf.
A sei whale mother and her calf (credit: Christin Khan, NOAA)

Sei whales are the third-largest baleen whales. Just like fin whales, they are very fast and prefer offshore waters. They are, therefore, not very likely to be spotted either from land or on a whale-watching tour. According to observations, there are about 10,000 individuals in the North Atlantic, with the most animals between Iceland and Greenland. During the height of modern whaling in the 20th century, the population of sei whales also decreased drastically after stocks of prior “popular” hunted whales were nearly depleted. Since the late 70s, the population size has slowly been recovering.

Grey whale
A grey whale breaching in Alaska (credit: Merrill Gosho, NOAA)

These large species can reach a maximum length of about 15 metres (50ft) and cannot be found in the North Atlantic, and therefore Iceland, anymore. You might wonder why they are then mentioned on the list of whales around Iceland. Well, a long time ago, grey whales were abundant around Europe. However, due to extensive whaling dating back as early as AD 500, the species was driven to extinction in that region. In Iceland, grey whales have been wiped out since the early 1700s. Nowadays, grey whales can only be found in the Pacific Ocean.

Toothed whales around Iceland

Toothed whales generally feed on fish and squid. They utilise their teeth for capturing and tearing their prey into smaller pieces, but they don’t chew them as we humans would. Most toothed whales use echolocation to communicate and hunt.

Orca / Killer whale
Orca, Whales of Iceland
An orca in the wild (credit: Felix Rottmann)

This apex predator can kill great white sharks without trouble and is also part of Iceland’s flourishing ocean wildlife! Orcas are highly intelligent, and they usually hunt in groups. They have quite a diverse diet, eating everything from fish, and sharks, to seals and other whales. The best place to see orcas in Iceland is on the Snæfellsnes peninsula with Láki tours from Ólafsvík. If herring is in the fjord, orcas can also often be spotted in the winter months – but the best time for observing them is from March until June. Check out orca whale-watching tours here

Pilot whale
Pilot whales
Pilot whale pod (credit: Bill Thompson/USFWS)

Long-finned pilot whales can be found in the North Atlantic and the Southern Hemisphere. The animals are very sociable, forming large groups of 20 to 150 individuals, but the pods can reach up to thousands of individuals. They form very strong bonds within their matrilineal group, with other adult animals often “babysitting” calves, even when they’re not closely related. 

Pilot whales frequently beach themselves, and often, the whole pod follows one leading animal, leading to hundreds dying. In 2019, around 50 pilot whales beached on the Snæfellsness peninsula, which was Iceland’s second-largest mass stranding of the past 40 years. It is not too usual to see pilot whales on whale-watching tours, but with some luck, you could definitely catch sight of a pod offshore the Snæfellsness peninsula!

Beluga whale
Beluga whales Little White & Little Grey take their first swim in their Beluga Whale Sanctuary home in Iceland
Little White & Little Grey in Klettsvík bay on Heimaey (credit: Sea Life Trust)

The “Canaries of the Sea” – as the species is often called due to their high vocality and use of various songs, clicks and whistles. Belugas have a distinct melon-shaped head with the melon – as it’s called – consisting of oil, which helps echolocation. Their vertebrae in the neck are not fused, so they can turn their heads without moving their white bodies, making their movement seem quite human-like. 

Belugas are not commonly seen in Iceland, but two rescued beluga whales are in the Sea Life sanctuary on Heimaey in the Westman Islands. Little White and Little Grey were rescued from an aquarium in Shanghai, and it is planned for them to move into a bay on the island for more freedom.

Narwhal
Narwhal Iceland
A narwhal and its great tusk near the Karl Alexander and Jackson Islands (northern part of the Franz Josef Land archipelago), June 2019 (credit: Wikimedia Commons, press service of Gazprom Neft PJSC)

Narwhals (Yes, they are spelled like that), also commonly referred to as the unicorns of the sea due to their unique ivory tusk, are excellent deep divers, reaching depths up to 800 metres (2,600ft). They travel in pods of about 20-30 animals. Their tusk grows out of their mouths into a spiral and possesses millions of nerve endings, helping them sense their surroundings. The tusk can reach a size of up to 3 metres (10ft). Interestingly enough, the tusk is the animals’ only tooth – so they swallow their prey whole! 

Generally, narwhal sightings in Iceland are pretty rare, with their natural habitat being in the Arctic waters of Canada, Greenland, Norway and Russia. Rarely they can be spotted in the far north of Iceland. 

Sperm whale
Sperm whale Iceland
A sperm whale mother with her calf (credit: Gabriel Barathieu, Wikimedia Commons)

Sperm whales are the largest toothed whales, reaching lengths between 11-16 metres (36-50ft). The species regularly dives to depths of 500-1000 metres (1640-3280ft) and can remain underwater for up to 40 minutes. They are quite known for their strong echolocation clicks, which they use to search for prey and communicate with their peers. Their top prey are medium-large squid and fish, with some sperm whales even carrying battle scars with giant squid! Interestingly enough, sperm whales around Iceland tend to hunt bony fish rather than squid. 

They are not often observed around the shores of Iceland, as they spend very little time at the surface, but they can be found off Iceland’s west coast and occasionally in the north of Iceland in late spring and summer.

The Whales of Iceland Museum

If you want to see all the mentioned whales above and even more in life-size, we highly recommend checking out the Whales of Iceland museum in Reykjavík. You can learn more about these fantastic animals inhabiting Icelandic waters in their exhibition. It’s also a great choice, in case the weather should be bad and your whale-watching tour has been cancelled! The museum is located in Grandi, right by the ocean, next to the big supermarket chain Krónan. 

Check out their website here.

You can book a whale-watching tour here.

Þór to Dispose of Stranded Pilot Whale Pod

The Icelandic Coast Guard Vessel Þór will arrive at Árneshreppur on the north coast of the Westfjords next week to remove over fifty pilot whale carcasses from the beach, RÚV reports. Þór will then dispose of the carcasses far enough out to sea that the tide won’t bring them back to shore.

The whales were stranded in Árneshreppur last weekend and died on the beach. Since then, the local government has discussed ways to dispose of the decomposing carcasses. Municipal Council Chair Eva Sigurbjörnsdóttir told RÚV that the Coast Guard Vessel is scheduled to arrive next Tuesday, and that locals are relieved that a solution has been found.

Locals were surprised to see the whales swim ashore. Farmer Björn G. Torfason told RÚV last week that he had never before seen anything like the pod of whales on the beach. A team of scientists from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute of Iceland has taken samples from the animals, but what caused the pod to swim to land is unknown. The MFRI hopes to gather information on the whales’ physical condition at their time of death, their age and how related the whales in the pod were.

Ten Pilot Whales Beach in Snæfellsnes

A pod of ten pilot whales beached in Álftafjörður on the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland on Sunday. RÚV reports that most of the whales were dead when a team of biologists and a veterinarian arrived on the scene, but two survived the ordeal.

The West Iceland Nature Research Center received a call around 2:00pm alerting them to the pilot whales’ dire situation. When the team arrived, they found one whale swimming just offshore from where the rest of its pod had beached. One of the beached animals was still alive but having trouble breathing as it was stuck on its side and the tide was coming in.

Screenshot, Náttúrufræðistofnun

The team was able to shift the beached whale back onto its belly so it could breathe properly and then helped move it back into the water. The animal was weak but recovered quickly and swam back to its companion. One of the whales “called to its friends several times,” said one of the biologists, “but, of course, it got no answers.”

The biologists said they needed a long moment to recover after rescuing the beached whale, but the emotional toll didn’t end there. They say that it’s clear that the two surviving whales don’t intend to leave the area while the rest of their pod lies dead on the beach. If they don’t leave the area, however, the biologists believe that it won’t be long before they beach on a nearby shore themselves.

The Nature Research Center urges people travelling in the area to keep an eye out for the whales and to immediately report any beaching incident to local police at 898-6638. Police will then contact Center employees to come and aid the animals.

Four Whales Stranded, Three Saved

Four pilot whales stranded near Ólafsvík, West Iceland yesterday evening, mbl.is reports. Three of the whales managed to return to sea of their own accord, while one died in the shallows. The whales were part of a large pod numbering some hundred animals, which was swimming 100-200m (330-650ft) from the shore.

Pilot whale pods have been seen close to shore very often this summer in West and Southwest Iceland. Around 50 pilot whales stranded near Garður, Southwest Iceland just earlier this month. Rescue workers managed to save 30 of them.

Kristinn Jónasson, mayor of Snæfellsbær, says a pilot whale pod has been spotted in the ocean near Ólafsvík this summer. “Three weeks ago there was one out at Rif, around 150 of them, then people came on jet skis and drove them out.”

Experts from the Marine and Freshwater Research Institute measured the dead beached whale and took samples from the corpse around noon today.

Best Practices for Saving Beached Whales

Two separate pods of pilot whales have gotten beached on Icelandic shores this summer, RÚV reports, leading experts to apprise locals of how best they can respond to such situations. Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir says that such beachings are becoming a yearly occurrence – an indirect result of warming ocean temperatures – and likely happen when whales pursue their prey too close to the shoreline.

In mid-July, 50 pilot whales were found dead on the shore of Löngufjörur in a sparsely populated part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula in West Iceland. Edda Elísabet assessed the situation at the time, saying that there were many reasons the animals could have gotten stranded. For one thing, she explained, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod. Moreover, strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area could have made it harder for the whales to get back out to sea. Pilot whales depend on sonar for navigation, but sonar would have been quite limited in the area, which also could account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.

Only last week, however, 50 more pilot whales beached in front of the Útskálakirkja seaside church in Garður, on the Reykjanes peninsula in Southwest Iceland. This time, the outcome was far more positive. Rescuers worked through the night and were able to save 30 whales.

Keep them wet, keep them calm

Edda Elísabet has important advice for anyone who encounters beached whales in Iceland. First and foremost, she said, the police should be contacted immediately. Police will then take care to notify the right people, the better to move rescue efforts in the right direction.

Next, she said, you should attend to the animals, albeit with extreme care. “One of the most important things you can do if the whale is alive,” she said, “is to keep it damp.” Whales are poorly suited to dry environments and unable to control their body temperatures on land, which means they overheat easily. Beached whales also need to be protected from the sun, to prevent burning.

Beached whales will be under an enormous amount of strain and distress, says Edda Elísabet, and easily disturbed by loud noises and abrupt movements, such as people just splashing water on them without them being able to see where it’s coming from. “We’ve seen that if there is someone with each whale, placing their hands on it and speaking gently to it or humming or creating a calm environment, that they seem to relax,” she explained.

There have been instances abroad of people contracting illnesses from dolphins and other related species, and so Edda Elísabet says it’s also important that rescuers wear gloves and be sure that the animals do not breathe in their faces. Professional responders don’t take such risks, she noted, and the public shouldn’t either.

Edda Elísabet said that the rescue efforts in Garði were so successful because they focused first on saving the adult females. “If a calf is released first, it’s likely that it will beach itself again because it’s chasing its mother. So it’s important to prioritise healthy females.” However, if a female is not in good condition, it can be dangerous to release her, because she may not be able to lead the pod to safety.

Following the food

Asked about what is causing whales to beach at this rate, Edda Elísabet said that research is still ongoing, but that there is evidence that whale migration patterns around Iceland are changing. They are increasingly traveling around the western and southwestern coasts of the country, most likely following their prey to unfamiliar hunting grounds.

“It’s very likely that their prey is leading this. Their food sources are more sensitive to sea temperatures. In this instance, we’re probably seeing them chasing mackerel and it’s possible that they’re pursuing mackerel more often [because] they’ve had a bad season for squid,” she explained. “Mackerel comes in very close to land, and that could explain why we’ve got a lot of them just off the country’s southwestern and western coasts.”

Jewellers Want Teeth and Bones From Massive Whale Beaching

beached whales

Icelandic jewellers are interested in buying teeth and bones from the carcasses of the fifty pilot whales which beached themselves on Snæfellsnes peninsula. The whales were found in Löngufjörur beach in Snæfellesnes in last week by American travellers. The landowner of Litla-Hraun, where the whales were found, warns the public that travelling in the area can be dangerous.

The whale beaching is thought to be the largest one in more than thirty years, as more than fifty whales beached themselves. Þorgrímur Leifsson is one two land-owners in the area. “It’s naturally a little bit weird and sad as well to see the whales there next to their little calves,” he said.

Specialists from the Marine Research Institute will head to the area tomorrow to inspect the area and collect samples. According to Þorgrímur, the animals will not be disposed of. “We plan to go and remove their teeth, then we’ll wait for the bones to reveal themselves and we’ll see what we’ll do with them. A jeweller contacted me and he wants both bones and teeth.” Þorgrímur says he doesn’t know how much the teeth and bones are worth, but a Reykjavík jeweller has already stated interest in them. There’s already considerable traffic in the area. “When I arrived yesterday there were eight planes, as well as jeeps, motorcycles, and quite a crowd. I believe it’s not safe for everyone to go there. You need to know the area to get down there. People need to respect the sea,” Þorgrímur explained. “It’s not the plan for the public to head down there, as it’s really quite dangerous.”

Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir said that there are any number of reasons that a pod of whales might accidentally swim into a dangerous area. For one thing, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod.

Edda Elísabet also explained that there are strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area and that this could have made it harder for the whales to get back out to sea. Pilot whales depend on sonar for navigation, but sonar would have been quite limited in the area. That also might account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.

Fifty Whales Found Dead on West Iceland Beach

beached whales

Fifty pilot whales were found dead on the shore of Löngufjörur in a sparsely populated part of the Snæfellsnes peninsula on Thursday, RÚV reports. A group of American tourists on a helicopter tour made the discovery and one of them, Greta Carlson, captured a video of the shocking sight and the group also reported it to local authorities in Stykkishólmur.

Greta said that she’d never seen anything like it and noted that some of the whale carcasses showed signs of having been cut or otherwise injured. She said she wanted to document the discovery in case the pictures and video she took could be used to somehow prevent a similar incident occurring in the future.

[media-credit name=”Screenshot from RÚV / Greta Carlson” align=”alignnone” width=”609″][/media-credit]

Marine biologist Edda Elísabet Magnúsdóttir said that there are any number of reasons that a pod of whales might accidentally swim into a dangerous area. For one thing, pilot whales are pack animals with strong social bonds, and do not easily abandon members of their pod.

Edda Elísabet also explained that there are strong tidal and seabed currents in the Löngufjörur area and that this could have made it harder for the whales to get back out to sea. Pilot whales depend on sonar for navigation, but sonar would have been quite limited in the area. That also might account for the whales getting stranded when the tide went out.

Pod of Pilot Whales Unexpectedly Spotted in Westfjords

A large and lively pod of pilot whales was spotted in Hestfjörður fjord in Iceland’s Westfjords yesterday, RÚV reports. Jóhannes Jónsson, a photographer for the news agency, was conveniently on the scene to capture the moment in a video which he set to the song “Flight from the City,” by Icelandic composer Jóhann Jóhannsson.

Gísli Víkingsson, a marine biologist at the Marine and Freshwater Research institute who specializes in whales, says that it’s rare for pilot whales to venture so far north but said that it’s possible that their appearance in Iceland’s waters can be credited to warming ocean temperatures. Their behaviour, however, was very much in keeping with typical pilot whales, who are social by nature and travel in large pods.

Although pilot whales are not typically seen in Icelandic waters, however, they’ve lingered around Icelandic fjords for the last month or so, much to the concern of many. Earlier this month, pilot whales were repeatedly herded out of Kolgrafafjörður in West Iceland by Search and Rescue crews who were concerned they’d become stuck in the narrow and rather comparatively shallow fjord. It does not appear to be known if the whales seen in Hestfjörður were the same ones as were enjoying coastal waters a little further south earlier this month.

Watch Jóhannes’ full video of the pilot whales on RÚV here.

Whales (Hopefully) Far from Fjord

A pod of pilot whales seems to have finally abandoned Kolgrafafjörður fjord after two attempts to herd the animals out, RÚV reports. Search and Rescue teams used boats to herd the animals out into deeper waters on Sunday night, only for the pod to return again the following day. After one of the whales got stranded on the bank, Search and Rescue teams came to its rescue and once more herded the pod out of the fjord, this time further out into the sea. The whales have not been spotted in the fjord since.

“It seems to have worked,” stated Einar Þór Strand, one of the Search and Rescue team members. Einar says Search and Rescue teams will be on standby in case the whales appear in the fjord again.

Bjarni Sigurbjörnsson, a resident of the area told RÚV it was the first time he has seen pilot whales in Kolgrafafjörður in over 20 years working in the area, and indeed the animals tend to stick to deeper waters.

Pilot Whales Fond of Fjord

Pilot whales which were herded out of Kolgrafafjörður in West Iceland by Search and Rescue crews have returned to the fjord, RÚV reports.

“They’re just here, splashing around calmly in one group,” Bjarni Sigurbjörnsson, a resident of the area told RÚV. Bjarni says it is the first time he has seen pilot whales in Kolgrafafjörður in over 20 years working in the area, and indeed the animals tend to stick to deeper waters.

Concerned the whales were stuck, Search and Rescue crews used two boats to herd the pod out of through the fjord’s narrow opening. The task did not go smoothly, as the animals appeared to be startled by the bridge which spans the opening of the fjord.

Photo: a screenshot from RÚV.

The whales were finally herded out around 9.00pm last night, but have since returned. Bjarni can see them through the window of his farm, frolicking some 50 metres from the shore. “Something is telling them to come in here,” he says.

Einar Þór Strand, a search and rescue volunteer involved in the operation, said herding whales with a boat “is really just as if you’re a dog herding sheep. The trouble was that when they reached the bridge the current was against them and they didn’t want to swim against the current. So we waited for the tide to turn and for it to go out, held them there by the bridge and when the first animal went the rest of the pod followed.”

Now that the whales are back again, Bjarni says he does not know if search and rescue teams will attempt another rescue operation. “As long as they’re not getting beached we should maybe just let them be,” he said. Watch drone footage of the whale rescue operation on RÚV’s website.